Who Helps the Helpers? 2020 Stretches the Limits of Frontline Workers, Most of All
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread into the next year, many conversations have been focused on the return to normal and the new normal. The pandemic has significantly changed our daily lives at work, school and home without any regard to who we are or where we are. There have already been more than 54.5 million cases and 1.32 million deaths related to COVID-19 reported globally, making it one of the worst pandemics in history. These numbers are increasing day by day.
Some days seem to be more overwhelming than others, with mixed feelings of grief, stress and exhaustion. Frontline workers, including health care professionals, law enforcement and firefighters, are perhaps the most familiar with experiencing those days. They remain dedicated to providing services in their communities by always answering the call to help at all times — normal and not normal. While frontline workers have shown strength and perseverance during the pandemic, their jobs involve working long shifts in sometimes difficult and traumatic situations that can impact their mental health. So, who helps the helpers when they are in need?
According to a May 2018 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), first responders have an increased risk of negative mental health issues including depression, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use and suicide. It indicates that 20 percent in the general population develop behavioral health conditions compared to 30 percent in first responders.
“The job our state troopers have to do is, without any doubt, one of the most challenging and strenuous there is, even under the best of circumstances, without a nationwide pandemic,” says Col. Bill Bryant, director of the Arkansas State Police. “We know firsthand the mental health toll it can inflict on the best man or woman who carries the trooper’s badge of this department, not to mention their families. But I give credit to the training each trooper goes through and the emphasis we place on making mental health services available to our personnel.”
The Arkansas State Police employs approximately 550 commissioned Arkansas State Troopers and 425 civilian support personnel. Trooper recruits are restricted to the academy classroom and field training for six to seven months. Bill Sadler, Arkansas State Police public information officer, tells AY About You, “They are conditioned to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.” There are incidences involving child maltreatment, car crashes, homicides and more that can be potentially traumatic for individuals in law enforcement. Furthermore, repeated exposure to these types of incidences is often associated with the development of mental health issues.
In an effort to provide mental health support within the Arkansas State Police, there is an emphasis placed on troopers communicating with supervisors and supervisors recognizing signs that something might be awry. Both internal employee assistance and external referrals to professional counselors are available to troopers. A peer-mentoring program is one example of internal employee assistance that directly pairs employees who have experienced similar struggles. The March 2019 report to Congress from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services provided recommendations that included expanding peer-mentoring programs to improve mental health resources for law enforcement.
“All a trooper has to do is go to their supervisor and ask for help, and we’ll go to work getting whatever they need to overcome any personal difficulties,” Bryant says.
Strong support systems, along with access to resources and care, play a critical role in addressing mental health issues.
Tony Boaz, director of AR-Connect, says, “the pandemic is causing lots of people to experience stressors that they would not normally have to deal with, and many of their coping mechanisms they are used to are not available, so that is creating a heightened sense of urgency for everyone.”
AR-Connect is a virtual program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Psychiatric Research Institute, funded in part by a $2 million federal grant from SAMHSA. It began earlier this May to help anyone in the state struggling with mental health issues related to the pandemic. The goal is to provide immediate assistance and eventually connect individuals with local resources near them.
There is a call center available 24/7 at 501-526-3563 or 800-482-9921. Intake coordinators help evaluate individuals and then set them up a virtual appointment via phone or video with a mental health care professional. AR-Connect offers timely care without the need for a referral or insurance.
One of the biggest challenges is making sure that services are provided to individuals in a safe way that also meets their needs. “The video platforms that are available work well until they don’t,” Boaz says. “When this happens, all of a sudden, the mental health professionals turn into makeshift IT workers.”
He points out the added stress associated with providing services virtually. “A day of seeing clients in person is draining, but with a day of therapy via video, the drain is exacerbated,” says Boaz. “Don’t get me wrong, it is great to be able to provide services, but nothing is better than in-person visits.”
Another part of Boaz’s job is to offer support to therapists in the field directly working with patients in the pandemic. His typical day at work involves not only focusing on the problems being presented by patients but also making sure therapists are coping well overall under the circumstances. While it can be stressful, Boaz finds ways to practice self-care and take time to do something for himself. He says that normal is what we need the most right now — “as in, when we can get back to whatever the pre-COVID normal was for everyone.”